Sake Beginner’s Guide: How to drink Sake the right way

One of the best and fun ways to imbibe the culture of Japan is the act of drinking sake. Popular in Japan with much traditions involved in it, there is so much to learn about sake.

This short Sake beginner’s guide will teach you more about Sake.

For upcoming Japan travelers, here are some fun facts and guidelines on how to enjoy sake the best way possible without making a cultural faux pas. Kanpai (cheers)!

What is sake?

Unfiltered strong sake in black ceramics on dark table - Sake Guide

Sake is a combination of fermented rice, koji (rice malt or yeast made from rice), and water.

However, just saying the word ‘sake’ in Japan won’t get you the mentioned drink.

Why?

Because ‘sake’ in Japanese refers to all alcoholic drinks in general which includes wine, beer, shochu, and sake (the beverage we call in English).

So how do you call the beverage ‘sake’ in Japan? The Japanese word is, nihonshu. If you request this at an izakaya (Japanese pub), you’ll be greeted welcomingly.

Essential Terms of Sake

Sake comes in many different types and variations. Although they are all fascinating to explore, it might be a bit overwhelming for sake newbies.

But don’t worry!

We’ll get you covered with some of the basic key concepts and terms that will help you understand and better enjoy this one of a kind, Japanese traditional drink.

For starters, here are some essential keywords to know about when drinking sake.

Tokkuri

It is a tiny, dimpled pitcher where sake is commonly served in.

Ochoko

Small sized cups meant for sake.

Sake Cups - Sake Guide

Masu

It is a small wooden box that was once the traditional way to drink sake. Before that, they were used as a unit measurement for rice.

Sake Masu

Polishing

Polishing of the rice is one of the first steps in making sake. All rice is brown prior to removing the husk. The rice kernel is milled (polished) to expose its starchy core by removing the outer layer of each grain.

The rice polishing ratio refers to the percentage of the rice that remains after the husk of the brown rice is polished off. The polishing process is essential because the outer layer of the grain contains higher amounts of protein and fats which produces undesirable aromas and negative flavors in the sake.

The lower the number of rice polishing ratio, the more rice will be polished more. Normally, it takes about 3 days to polish rice down to half of its original size.

Rich Polishing Ratio Diagram
Image Credits: Sake Hiroshima

So, sake that is made with highly milled rice tend to be more expensive than those that are made with less polished rice.

Sake brewed from unpolished rice has a thicker taste, leaving strong impressions of deep-flavored sake, and with a noticeable smell of rice. On the contrary, sake made with well-polished rice has a light, cleared flavor with bright aromas.

The usual rice polishing ratio for good sake ranges from 50 to 70 percent, meaning 30 to 50 percent of the original rice kernel has been polished away. However, the quality of sake is not solely dependant on the polishing ratio as the process of proper polishing is equally important.

Sometimes sake experts would also prefer the cheaper local sake if it is made from quality ingredients by experienced brewers.

Junmai

In Japanese, Junmai refers to “pure rice.”

Take note! Because this word will help you to spot the difference between pure rice sake from non-pure rice sake.

As Junmai is brewed only using rice, water, yeast, and koji, additives such as sugar and alcohol are not included. You can differentiate the difference by spotting the word ‘junmai’ (as written in Japanese, 純米) on a bottle of sake. If it’s not written, it’s not pure rice.

However, whether a sake is junmai does not make it more superior. Often times skilled brewers use additives such as distilled brewers alcohol to enhance or change flavor profiles and aromas. This helps to make some sake smooth and easy to drink.

Where can you drink sake?

Late night japan - japan guide

You can literally look out for sake barrels or sake bottles that is displayed outside of the restaurant!

Most of the restaurants in Japan serve sake as well, so it’s pretty easy to find sake in the restaurants’ menus everywhere in Japan.

Tip: Sake goes extremely well with sushi!

If you’re around Tokyo, you might be interested in this article written by the Culture Trip on the top 10 best sake bars in Tokyo!

Sake with Sushi - Sake Guide

Should you drink your sake hot or cold?

There is no hard-and-fast rule to this because it just isn’t as straightforward in Japan.

Ultimately, it still comes down to the sake in question and your own preference. But here are some general guidelines about what is preferred in Japan!

Firstly, the very best sake is meant to be enjoyed chilled because serving it hot would mask some of the drink’s subtle flavors.

Secondly, most Japanese prefer to drink cold sake in the summer and warm sake in the winter.

When in doubt, you can always ask the shop or restaurant staff for their recommendation.

Don’t be shy!

They are the best person to ask and would gladly offer their help.

Also, avoid extremes when it comes to chilling or heating as it can disrupt the particular flavors and aromas of a sake. When warming, pour the sake into a receptacle such as a sake carafe and heat gradually in a water bath.

No intense heating, no direct heat, and definitely no microwaves! With that being said, each sake is different with distinctive characteristics that are brought out with different temperatures.

So, bring your taste buds on an adventure and experiment to see how you would like best! Many sake varieties taste great at different temperatures — as different temperatures draw out distinctive characteristics — which makes it very worthwhile to experiment for yourself.

How to order sake in Japan?

Sake Pouring

So many sake breweries, so little time to try all! When time is short, the best way to taste the local’s favorite is to ask for a recommendation. This works too when you feel totally lost when reading the sake menu (the list gets pretty long!).

When asking for a recommendation:

Anata wa dore ga ski des-ka?

Meaning ‘Which one do you like?’

When asking the preference between hot or cold:

Hotto

Means ‘hot’.

 Aisu

Means ‘cold’.

After getting your recommendation, thank the server by saying ‘onegaishimasu’ (which means thank you) and your server will be both impressed and happy to serve you!

What Kind of Receptacle (Or Cup) to Use?

Again, there are no set rules to this as this is entirely up to your preference.

However, for many sake connoisseurs, it is recommended to drink premium sake out of a glass.

Why?

Because it prevents from getting in the way of the complex and subtle hints of flavors and aromas.

However, for a wholesome Japanese sake experience, drinking from a sake receptacle such as a masu and ochoko is quite enjoyable as well.

Sake receptacles - Sake Guide

Important Sake-drinking Etiquette

  1. When someone pours you sake, always remember to lift up your cup to them. Because if you don’t, and the other person is Japanese, they will awkwardly wait for you to!
  2. They might tell you to stop, but when pouring sake, don’t. Remember to always help refill the other person’s ochoko once it is empty.
  3. Once you’ve had a couple of rounds with your close friends, you may start pouring for yourself. But only if you act as if no one else was watching. This move is referred to in Japan as tejaku.
  4. Always use both hands when handling sake cups and pitchers. This is applied for every action when in Japan. For example, when receiving business cards or handling money.
  5. This point applies to all women. Remember to place your hands under your sake cup while sake is being poured. Even when your sake is hotto!

Types of Sake

Sake Bottles in one row

Your understanding of polishing and junmai (mentioned above) will help you see the differences between the various types of sake.

There are so many different types of sake that — to keep things simple — we’re going to focus only on some major types and classifications.

Along with a good cup, this information is all you need to enjoy some sake tasting at a specialty sake shop, bar, or izakaya. There are several factors to classify sake. For example, the type of rice used, the degree of the rice polishing ratio, where it was produced, how it was filtered and many more.

We want you to enjoy sake tasting — not overwhelm you — so here is a handy list of the main types and classifications of sake you will encounter.

If you learn even just a few of these, you will know more about sake than 99 percent of the travelers who visit Japan.

Junmai

Junmai refers to pure rice (純米) sake with no additives included. The rice used for this classification mostly has been polished to at least 70 percent.

Generally, junmai sake usually has a rich body accompanied by a strong, slightly acidic flavor.  It is best served when it is warm or room temperature.

Honjozo

Similar to Junmai, Honjozo (本醸造) also use rice that has been polished to at least 70 percent. However, the difference lies in the small amount of distilled brewers alcohol that honjozo includes.

As the additives added help in smoothening out the flavor and aroma of the sake, honjozo sakes tend to be light and easy to drink.

Honjozo can be served either in chilled or room temperature.

Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo

Ginjo (吟醸) refers to premium sake that is brewed using special yeast and fermentation techniques.

The rice it uses is polished to at least 60 percent. As a result, it is often quite aromatic with a complex fragrant that is light and fruity.

It is considerably easy to drink and preferably served chill. But of course, there’s no rule that says you must only enjoy them chilled!

In reference to junmai, junmai ginjo is ginjo sake brewed with pure rice and no additives.

Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo

Daiginjo (大吟醸) is super premium sake (hence the “dai,” or “big”) and is regarded by many as the pinnacle of the brewer’s art. It requires precise brewing methods and uses rice that has been polished all the way down to at least 50 percent.

Daiginjo sakes are often relatively pricey and are usually served chilled to bring out their nice light, complex flavors and aromas.

Junmai daiginjo is daigino sake that uses pure rice and does not include additives.

Futsushu

Futsushu (普通種) is referred to as table sake. The rice it uses is polished only up to 70 to 90 percent, which is very little compared to the other types.

Generally, most people would drink other types of sake with reasonable pricing rather than drink futsushu with just an average flavor.

Shiboritate

Shiboritate is sake that skips the maturing process of six months or more which helps to bring out the flavors. Instead, it goes directly from the presses into the bottles and is sold to the market.

Some drinkers liken the shiboritate sake to white wine with its wild and fruity hints. It is the type of sake that’s either you love it or hate it.

Nama-zake

Nama-zake tends to have fresh, fruity hints with a sweet aroma. It is unique individually because unlike other sake that is pasteurized twice, the nama-zake is unpasteurized. As a result, it requires to be refrigerated to be kept fresh.

Nigori

The Nigori (濁り) sake is often more popular in Japanese restaurants outside of Japan. It has a cloudy white appearance with small bits of rice floating around in it.

While some nigori sake textures are smooth and others are thick and chunky, it has a sweet and creamy taste.

Jizake

Jizake (地酒) is translated as “local sake”. It goes extremely well with Japan’s local delicacies and can be easily found, especially when traveling in different regions of Japan.

Since it is popular locally, it is often fresh and reasonably priced.

Try all Sakes with an open mind!

Sake Bottles in 3 rows

These tasting guidelines are intended to provide a basic introduction to sake.

After reading this Sake beginner’s guide, you should still expect to encounter different variation and tasting experience in each of the sake mentioned above. As the sake brewed may vary according to the brewer’s skills, rice quality, water used and the like!

Keep an open mind when trying each sake. Who knows that you might even encounter a whole new experience?

Speaking of new experiences, head over to our ultimate Japan travel guide which has tons of insights of Japan. You might just explore something new!

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